I met Stephen one day while I was taking my daily walk in the neighborhood of Death’s Door.
“I’m Stephen with a PH,” he said.
Stephen with a PH was a vet, having finished his third deployment in Afghanistan during his eight-year commitment with the Army.
“Yes, ma’am, Operation Enduring Freedom in the Gamberi province. Thunder Hours Battalion, 12 Calvary Regiment, Long Knife Division, Assassins Alpha Company. Oo-ra.”
He snapped to attention and maintained that posture until, just to play along, I said, “At ease, soldier. And please stop ‘ma’aming’ me.”
He spread his legs shoulder width apart and clasped his hands behind his back. “No, ma’am. Being respectful, ma’am.”
“Okay, whatever. Walk with me,” I said.
It was another beautiful day, but I could feel the weather beginning its descent into hellish summer 110-120 degree heat. We were insulated at Death’s Door, our own self-contained world. Being outside brought back feelings about being in the real world, which I had come to Death’s Door to escape: Normal people living normal lives, something I could not do after Jonathan died. I blathered on about the weather to keep myself from thinking about Jonathan.
Stephen told me he had been in the infantry. Then he abruptly stopped talking, but continued walking. I took his arm, so I could stop him. I looked up into his boyish face. He couldn’t have been much older than twenty-five, twenty-six. He had a buzz cut. His face showed a great hurt, eyebrows hooded over his green eyes, mouth downturned, olive skin except for his face, which was pale as though the color had been leeched out.
Stephen was married and had three girls under the age of eight. I couldn’t imagine how his wife managed that brood while Stephen was deployed. She had her own war to deal with. In my mind I saw photos of his family. They were the epitome of Middle America, the kind of family we were supposedly fighting to protect by sending young men and women to the Middle East. Killing people, being killed.
“What’s going on, Stephen?” I asked. I ask questions like that and then have to live with the answers.
“Ma’am, I had a phone call last night from a guy in my company. He called to tell me another man in our company committed suicide.” He paused. “I saw things and did things that–”
“Please, Portia,” I said.
“Mrs. Phillips, that man’s name was Benny Mascowitz.”
I squinched up my eyes. “Huh?”
“The man who killed himself. Benny Mascowitz.”
“Um,” I said, shading my eyes with my hand. I motioned with my head to keep walking.
“I killed people.” He looked at me to see how I would react.
“Houses and businesses looked like shacks, some just lean-tos with fabric roofs. When we patrolled, people would stay inside, and we saw curtains moving, hiding eyes that watched us as we walked by. We were trained to hunt for insurgents, the other side…al Qaeda. Sometimes we shot people. I didn’t know for sure if they were insurgents. If a car didn’t stop when we ordered it to, when someone looked…I don’t know…hinky, I guess.” He hunched his well-developed shoulders. His arms and chest were muscular under his melon-colored golf shirt. He knew how to dress to show off his weightlifting efforts. He was five ten and built like a semi.
He stopped talking and stared across the road at the gardeners.
“Do you want to go back to Death’s Door?” I asked.
“No, ma’am,” but he continued staring. “That looks easy, doesn’t it?” he said and pointed at the gardeners.
“The gardeners? Wow. They’re probably working long hours in the sun for low wages. I don’t know. That’s just my assumption. I see them out here in 120-degree heat wearing long pants, long-sleeve shirts, and hats. It doesn’t look too easy to me.”
“They don’t hurt anyone, do they, ma’am, mowing the grass?”
“No, I wouldn’t think so.”
“My job wasn’t easy, ma’am. I killed people,” he said again.
“I would imagine that was very difficult for you.”
“Ma’am, I was trained to kill.”
I waited. We were standing on a sidewalk, and other walkers moved around us after giving us death stares for blocking their path.
“I could do that, I could kill people I knew were insurgents, but sometimes we didn’t know for sure what we were getting into and didn’t have time to evaluate whether three women standing in front of us, where we can’t see their hands, are just three women or if they’ve got an IED hidden in their burqas and chadors. We had to make split second decisions, and sometimes—”
He started walking back toward Death’s Door. “Sometimes there were bad results, real fuckups. Uh, excuse me, ma’am.”
“It’s fine. No worries. Go ahead.”
“Well, that’s it,” he said and walked faster.
I had to lengthen my stride to keep up with him. He had long legs. He had something on his mind but wasn’t ready to tell me.
“Come on, race me back to Death’s Door,” he said.
And so we ran. He was about twenty years younger than me, but what I lacked in speed, I made up for in attitude. We got back to the main door about the same time. He was barely breaking a sweat, and I could barely breathe.
“Look at that,” I gasped. “A dead heat.”
As I drove to work I thought about Stephen and his job description to kill people. I kept working to give myself something to do during the long days and because I enjoyed my work. I was a registered nurse in the Geriatric Surgery department at Coachella Valley Medical Center, where elder patients stayed who were post-op. I worked the graveyard shift. My job was the opposite of Stephen’s. My mandate was to do whatever I could to keep people alive. We were faced with decisions about whether to administer live-saving protocols to patients in their nineties or cancer patients with six months to live. The decision was taken away from us when a patient had an advanced directive that stated she did or did not want heroic measures to save her life.
We always asked if a patient had an advanced directive so when everything went south, we knew whether we were supposed to keep the patient alive by any means necessary, whereby the patient was only alive because machines were doing the work to breathe and feed. Most of the time patients who went into the end zone didn’t want us to use heroics to save them. They absolutely did not want to end their lives that way.
We were sometimes faced with a patient who had multiple health issues, none of them outright killing the person at the moment. When I took pills and syringes into their rooms, they asked me to give them enough to kill them. I had been tempted to, but, of course, I didn’t. I did quietly tell them about Death’s Door, and their eyes lit up.
One of my patients, Morana Broadmoor, was fifty-one years old. She had a mild heart attack and was in the hospital after having a double bypass. After the surgery, she slept for about ten hours, and when she woke up, she was extremely agitated. She tried to get out of her bed, but the bedrails were in place, so, unless she scooted to the bottom of the bed, she wasn’t going anywhere, and so that’s exactly what she tried to do. The problem was that she had just been sliced open from collarbone to breast bone and she was connected to EKG leads and IV tubes. She started screaming, and her screams carried down the hall.
I re-checked her chart. She had dementia, probably early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Her daughter reported that Morana had moments of lucidity and moments of sheer disorientation. She had just started Aricept to treat the dementia. While we didn’t like sedating our patients unless absolutely necessary because of potential danger to an elder person’s system, we sedated Morana to ensure that her surgical site was protected from undue physical exertion.
One day while she was quietly eating her breakfast, I was ready to clock out, but decided to said goodbye to her. She was going home that day.
“I know that I go nuts sometimes,” she said. “When it happens, at one level I know I’m screeching and swearing, and at another level I can’t control myself because I don’t know what is happening. When my doctors told me they were pretty certain I had Alzheimer’s, I underwent genetic testing, and the results of that test confirmed that 100 percent, no question, I have early-onset. I am menopausal, but I’m not crazy. And now this heart business. I’ve already gotten two lectures about taking care of my body, taking care what I eat, exercise, blah, blah, blah. How in holy hell am I supposed to do that when half the time I don’t know I have a body?”
I looked out in the hall. Everyone was busy dispensing breakfast trays. I closed the door and spoke quietly. I was not sure why I felt the need to tell people about Death’s Door out of hearing of the rest of the staff. Death’s Door wasn’t illegal. In fact it was the holy grail of assisted death facilities. But the philosophy and purpose of the facility was the antithesis of the hospital where we were mandated to save people’s lives. What would the cardiac surgeon who just spent five-and-a-half hours replacing Morana’s arteries think if he knew she was leaving the hospital and checking into Death’s Door, a place that ensured her heart would no longer beat, no matter how excellent his surgical skills and result?
“I live at an assisted death facility called Death’s Door,” I said. “It’s here in the valley. You might be interested in coming over and taking a tour. Just a look.” I gave her Ophelia’s card.
Morana looked at me, searching my face for, what, I wasn’t sure. A reflection of herself?
“Morana, do you understand what I just said?” I asked her.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“I’m Portia. Your night nurse.”
“What the hell are you doing in my room?”
“Stopping by to see you, to see how you’re doing this morning,” I said.
She grabbed her sheet and blanket and put them over her head like a child playing peek-a-boo. “Go away.”
“Let’s get you comfortable, and then I’ll leave,” I said.
I tried to take the bedding from Morana, but, like Linus, she held onto it, ferociously strong. It was either time to sedate her again or let the morning shift worry about separating her from her blanket. I decided to talk to the day charge nurse, who said she would take care of her. I left Ophelia’s card on Morana’s table. Maybe, when she returned to our realm, she would remember that I had come to see her. I loved her already, and I was sure I would never see her again.